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Why is disaster risk so hard to grasp?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 7 May 2014 12:59 GMT
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U.S. President Barack Obama tours the earthquake-hit Italian town of L'Aquila with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, near the site of the annual G8 Summit July 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed
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When six Italian scientists and an ex-government official were handed six-year prison sentences for manslaughter linked to the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 309 people, the legal arguments turned on whether a national risk committee that met just before the disaster had failed to provide public information that could have saved lives.

The prosecution accused the government of downplaying the likelihood of a damaging earthquake, while the defence argued that such events cannot be predicted accurately.

Irrespective of who was right, this case brought international attention to the difficulties of communicating disaster risk in an accurate, nuanced and responsible way.

Our technical ability to model and predict risks posed by natural hazards - from earthquakes to floods and storms - is coming on leaps and bounds. Just this week, for example, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) said new technologies allowing communities to visualise disaster risk and take action will be made available for cities worldwide through a collaboration with Esri, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provider.

But the key to preventing hazards from turning into disasters that harm lives, property and the environment is putting the tools to understand the risks firmly in the hands of those on the front line, from ordinary people to policy makers, experts say. This remains a challenge, despite the growing sophistication of those tools.

Alanna Simpson, a disaster risk management specialist with the World Bank, believes that many disaster risk assessments turn out as little more than scientific and engineering exercises. "The best risk assessment using the best available data and the most amazing innovations generated in London is not likely to be used in Mozambique," she told a debate on the issue at the London-based Overseas Development Institute last week.

To be successful, such assessments must bring on board local decision makers and experts in a collaborative effort right from the start through to the actual deployment of the information, she said. Otherwise the resources spent on them may not achieve the intended effect, she warned.

CREDIBILITY

So why are people not using much of the clever risk information that is being produced nowadays through satellite imagery and remote sensing?

"A lot of that comes down to relationships and trust," Simpson said. When assessments fail to incorporate essential pieces of local knowledge - such as the location of a seismic fault - because no one bothers to ask for it, they lose credibility, she added.

A good risk assessment will be available to all in digital format, including maps, she said. It should look at multiple types of hazards, and encourage different sectors to work together. It must also consider evolving risks, such as climate change and rapid urban growth.

"False accuracies" - precise numbers of people who could be affected or lines delineating flood-risk zones - are best avoided, as they don't reflect inherent uncertainties. And talking to officials - who decide how much to spend on averting disasters - should be done in terms of the financial liabilities disasters can incur, such as the costs of rebuilding and increased need for social protection.  

On top of all of those recommendations, communicating risk information to those who need it is "an urgent priority", Simpson said.

And that is often where things go wrong, especially when it comes to the "last mile" - or the final step of making sure essential information gets to local people, who may be illiterate or living in remote places.

For example, after the devastation wrought on vulnerable coastal communities by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November, there was discussion on whether more people would have evacuated their homes in time and protected themselves better if words like "storm tsunami" had been used in government alerts rather than "storm surge".

LAST MILE 'THE LONGEST'

Nicola Ranger, a climate scientist working with the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), told the London event that U.N. progress reports of advances in early warning systems may be "optimistic", particularly for vulnerable groups in poorer countries like Haiti.

"The last mile is by far the longest," she said, adding that the scientific part is relatively easy. Greater efforts are needed to produce risk information together with its users, but "we can't do a risk assessment for every community", she said.

Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre - which has made big strides in helping the Red Cross movement prepare communities better for disasters - argued that "a gold standard" isn't required. "Good enough is good enough," he said. "It is more about the decisions we feed than an idealised quality of information."

The key is to push disaster risk reduction up individual and political agendas at an opportune time, when there is an appetite for information and new approaches, he said. This is often in the wake of an emergency, when it is clear to people that bad decisions have put them in harm's way.

The World Bank's Simpson said it was preferable to act before a disaster happens, especially if you offer immediate steps that can lessen the risks.

"Building back better (after a disaster) tends to be the focus, but it's not always the right time to engage in conversations with communities when they have just gone through profound devastation," she said.

Either way, disaster risk information should be seen as the start of the process not the end, she added.

Emily Wilkinson, an ODI research fellow, argued that disaster risk assessments should not even be commissioned without providing training and support for those who need to interpret and make use of the results.

For those interested in learning more, the World Bank and other partners are organising an "Understanding Risk" forum in London from June 30 to July 4.

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